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Airlines cut deeper into standard legroom

Seek to help boost profits

Passengers in economy class might notice a tighter fit as carriers reduce legroom to squeeze in more travelers.

Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images

Passengers in economy class might notice a tighter fit as carriers reduce legroom to squeeze in more travelers.

Justin Klein is 6-foot-3, which means he is acutely aware how close his knees are to the seat in front of him on a plane. And on a recent business trip from Nashville to Chicago on a newly reconfigured Southwest Airlines plane, the 33-year-old regional sales manager immediately noticed he had lost an inch of legroom.

His knees were jammed in so tightly that he couldn’t stretch out his legs under the seat in front of him. When he reclined in his seat, he could lean back only two inches instead of the usual three.

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“It’s ruined the Southwest flying experience,” said Klein, 33.

Southwest is one of several airlines squeezing seats closer together in order to pack in more passengers, create rows with extra legroom for people willing to pay more, or both. Southwest Airlines has started adding six more seats to its planes, losing an inch of room between seats in the process. WestJet, out of Canada, is whacking several inches of space to make room for a section of higher-fare seats with extra legroom.

Even JetBlue Airways, which has long boasted the most legroom in the industry, announced earlier this month that it had removed an inch of legroom in the rear 11 rows of its Embraer E190 aircraft to accommodate expanded legroom in new, higher-priced rows.

Not only are the cheap seats closer together, there are fewer of them available as some airlines charge extra for window and aisle seats and remove rows to add premium coach sections. This makes it harder for families to find affordable seats together and makes travelers who have paid more reluctant to switch seats. And with airlines operating fewer flights to fill planes and cut costs, the standard economy seat has become a much harder commodity to come by.

“You are getting squeezed in all directions,” said Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst with Atmosphere Research Group.

Legroom is going the way of checked bags, in-flight meals, and pillows — once-free amenities that now come at a cost. In a fiercely competitive industry, this allows airlines to offer lower base ticket prices, while generating new revenue from those willing to pay additional fees.

Many passengers say that more legroom is the improvement they want most — 41 percent according to a recent survey by TripAdvisor, a travel-review website based in Newton. But 71 percent said they weren’t willing to pay for extra legroom on domestic flights under four hours.

“It’s kind of ridiculous that you have to pay for the ability to sit comfortably in a seat,” said Susan Mocarski, founder of the startup Providence outerwear company Cleverhood , who flies out of Logan four or five times a month for work and can’t afford to pay for extra legroom. “It just seems like it’s inching up on absolutely intolerable travel.”

United Airlines started the trend of offering higher-priced economy seats with extra legroom in 2005. Now all the major domestic carriers, with the exception of Southwest and US Airways, have done the same, and it has been a dependable revenue stream for cash-strapped airlines. JetBlue expects premiums paid for extra-legroom seats to bring in $150 million this year. Larger carriers generate significantly more but will not release the figures.

Some airlines have taken legroom reduction to an extreme. Spirit Airlines has just 28 inches between rows, the lowest in the industry. This configuration allows Spirit to get more people aboard and charge lower fares, the airline said.

Still, packing people too close together on planes can raise safety concerns. “You can’t get much tighter than that,” analyst Harteveldt said of Spirit’s legroom, “because you run into issues of being able to safely evacuate a plane.”

Spirit said safety is its top priority and its seating configuration complies with FAA regulations.

Southwest is now down to the industry standard of 31 inches between seats, a measurement called pitch, on its planes. A decade ago, the industry average was 32 inches. Southwest, however, said its new configuration includes seats with slimmer cushions and arm rests that allow more personal space on each side and include ergonomic improvements, such as better lower back support. “We’ve had people say that it’s much more comfortable,” said Southwest spokesman Paul Flaningan.

Salem resident Jake Sullivan, 29, who travels several times a month for his work as a client services manager at a Boston concierge company, said he has become “emotionally attached” to JetBlue in part because of the airline’s space, with 34 inches between each row in coach on its Airbus A320s.

But even JetBlue, Boston’s biggest carrier, has cut legroom in economy to offer more in higher-priced sections. On its Embraer E190 planes, 44 seats that previously had 33 inches of pitch now have 32, enabling the airline to add two higher-priced rows with 38 and 39 inches of pitch.

Sullivan, for his part, is willing to shell out more money for extra legroom if he needs it.

“I just look at it as the cost of doing business,” he said. “If you want to fly, you play by the rules of the game.”

Katie Johnston can be reached at kjohnston@globe.com and on Twitter @ktkjohnston.
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